Walz calls special session for police reform, pandemic response

Gov. Tim Walz at a press conference announcing a new executive order that eases restrictions on restaurants, gyms, and other areas of the economy on June 5, 2020 in St. Paul, Minn. Photo by Anthony Souffle/Star Tribune.

Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday called legislators back for a special session starting Friday, urging them to address police reform as well as the state’s pandemic response and recovery.

Lawmakers already had a host of legislative loose ends to tie up from the regular session that ended in May, like the state’s budget deficit, pandemic economic relief and a major public works package. The police killing of George Floyd has energized calls for police reform that Walz and DFL legislators hope to tackle, although some Republicans have already said that enacting sweeping change so soon isn’t realistic.

“This call to a special session — it’s not a call just from me,” Walz said. “It’s that primal scream you heard from people on the streets demanding justice, demanding it now and demanding us step into this moment.”

Days of demonstrations against police after white former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes have given Minnesota a “unique opportunity” for systemic change, Walz said.

The Legislature’s People of Color and Indigenous Caucus released a sweeping legislative package last week that includes, among other items, provisions to expand officer training, fund mental health and community services, change use-of-force laws and give the state Attorney General the ability to investigate and prosecute officer-involved deaths. Caucus Chair Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, said in a news release that Minnesotans are “tired of waiting for reform, tired of waiting for accountability, and tired of waiting for justice.”

But not all legislators are on board with the idea of swift action. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, recently said that he believes there is work to be done, but it’s unreasonable to expect it to be done so quickly.

Walz said legislators should keep working until they pass the reforms. In addition to changes in policing, the state will need to address its racial disparities in education, health care and other areas, he said.

“What fueled the rage on the streets was this idea that we’ll just wait until there’s a better time to fix this,” Walz said. “To say that we’re going to wait — why would (residents) believe we would wait and get it done? We didn’t get anything done during the regular session.”

The Legislature will also vote during the special session on Walz’s third extension of the state’s peacetime emergency. The peacetime emergency has given the governor the power to implement measures during the pandemic like halting evictions and closing businesses — some of which were loosened Wednesday as indoor dining, gyms and entertainment venues were allowed to open at limited capacities.

The first-term governor has faced increasing backlash and several lawsuits over the restrictions intended to slow the spread of COVID-19. Walz said he and other governors are trying to work out how to roll back some regulations instituted under the peacetime emergency without some residents abruptly losing protections like the eviction moratorium.

“I remind Minnesotans that the pandemic is far from over,” he said.